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Colleges Have Increased Women Computer Science Majors: What Can Google Learn?

Aug 10, 2017
Originally published on August 11, 2017 9:28 am

A Google engineer who got fired over a controversial memo that criticized the company's diversity policies said that there might be biological reasons there are fewer women engineers. But top computer science schools have proven that a few cultural changes can increase the number of women in the field.

In 2006, only about 10 percent of computer science majors at Harvey Mudd College were women. That's pretty low since Harvey Mudd is a school for students who are interested in science, math and technology. Then, Maria Klawe began her tenure as president of the college.

Klawe — a computer scientist herself — had always been told that girls weren't good at these things. "This whole idea that women lean to liking doing one thing and men to doing another, it turns out I think if you do the curriculum and pedagogy well that's just false," she says.

In fact, as soon as she arrived Klawe joined in an effort to change the curriculum. First the school changed the name of the intro course, which had been called Intro to Java — a programming language.

Faculty came up with a new name: Creative Problem Solving in Science and Engineering Using Computational Approaches.

And then, Klawe says, the college also had to address the fact that a lot of women were intimidated by male students who showed off in class. Many had done some programming in high school and they would dominate discussion.

So, they created a second intro course for students who had no previous experience. Klawe says that it took away the "intimidation that comes of being a class where you've had no prior experience and somebody else has been programming since they were eight."

Klawe says they also countered the stereotype that computer geeks were guys who spent all their time alone in a basement. "They had very deliberately made it collaborative and involving teamwork instead of being lonely," she says.

Harvey Mudd's intro computer class became among the school's most popular. And now, instead of 10 percent in any given year, the number of women computer science majors ranges between 40 percent and 50 percent.

Harvey Mudd isn't the only school seeing success in this effort. Carnegie Mellon has also significantly raised the number of women who major in computer science. Jane Margolis, an education researcher at UCLA began a four-year study of Carnegie Mellon in 1994. At the time, only 7 percent of computer science majors were women.

"It was not a question of capacity or ability" Margolis says. "It was a question of women feeling that they weren't welcome or that their existence was suspect."

For example, Margolis says there was a computer science club in which the men put the women down if they didn't think about coding all day and night.

And yet, when Margolis interviewed the men, she found they had other interests too. "Many of them would say I like to do other things besides computing. I like to hike or I like to bike. But they never felt like their presence was being scrutinized."

Carnegie Mellon instituted a series of reforms. The school created a women's computer club. The school made it harder to become a computer science major — as always applicants had to be good at math and science but now they also had to show they had leadership qualities.

Today, instead of 7 percent, over 40 percent of the computer science majors at Carnegie Mellon are women.

For companies like Google — where only 20 percent of women are in technical positions — the question is whether there is something to be learned from these educational programs.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now a counter-example to that Google engineer whose memo about diversity got him fired. He argued that biological differences may explain why there are so few women in his field. Some top computer science schools have had different experiences. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, they've shown that just a few changes can increase the number of women engineers.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: When Maria Klawe arrived at Harvey Mudd College in 2006, only 10 percent of the computer science majors were women. That's pretty low since Harvey Mudd is a school for students who are interested in science, math and technology. Klawe, a computer scientist herself, is president of Harvey Mudd. She has always been told that girls weren't good at these things.

MARIA KLAWE: This whole idea that women lean to liking doing one thing and men to doing another - it turns out, I think if you do the curriculum pedagogy well, that's just false.

SYDELL: In fact, as soon as she arrived, Klawe joined in an effort to change the curriculum. First, they changed the name of the intro course which had been called intro to Java. That's a programming language.

KLAWE: They framed it as creative problem solving in science and engineering using computation approaches.

SYDELL: And then Klawe says they had to address the fact that a lot of women were intimidated by male students who showed off in class. Many had done some programming in high school, and they would dominate the discussion. So they created a second intro course for students who had no previous experience. And she says they fought against the stereotype that computer geeks were guys who spent all their time alone in a basement.

KLAWE: So they had very deliberately made it collaborative and involved in teamwork instead of being lonely and then taken away the intimidation that comes with being a class where you've had no prior experience and somebody else has been programming since they were 8.

SYDELL: Harvey Mudd's intro computer class became among the school's most popular. And now, instead of 10 percent, in any given year, the number of women computer science majors ranges between 40 and 50 percent. Harvey Mudd isn't the only school to successfully raise the number of women computer science majors. Jane Margolis is an education researcher at UCLA. In 1994, she began a four-year study of Carnegie Mellon. At the time, only 7 percent of computer science majors there were women.

JANE MARGOLIS: I was not a question of capacity or ability. It was a question of women feeling that they weren't welcome or that their existence was suspect.

SYDELL: For example, Margolis says there was a computer science club with both men and women in it. She says the men put the women down if they didn't think about coding all day and all night. Yet when Margolis interviewed the men...

MARGOLIS: Many of them would say, I like to do other things besides computing. I like to hike, or I like to bike. But they never felt like their presence was being scrutinized.

SYDELL: Carnegie Mellon instituted a series of reforms, among them the creation of a women's computer club. They made it harder to become a computer science major. Applicants had to be good at math and science, but they also had to show they had leadership qualities. Today, instead of 7 percent, over 40 percent of the computer science majors at Carnegie Mellon are women.

For companies like Google where only 20 percent of women are in technical positions, the question is whether there's something to be learned from these educational programs. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.